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small noaa logo Home | Emergency Response | Recent and Historical Incidents

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

On March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef in Alaska's Prince William Sound, rupturing its hull and spilling nearly 11 million gallons of Prudhoe Bay crude oil into a remote, scenic, and biologically productive body of water. It was the largest single oil spill in U.S. coastal waters.* In the weeks and months that followed, the oil spread over a wide area in Prince William Sound and beyond, resulting in an unprecedented response and cleanup.

This page provides an overview of the Exxon Valdez spill and links to many additional resources, including:

Collage with three photos from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. 1: Exxon Valdez in surf, aground on reef. 2: Woman examines pooled oil among rocks to determine depth of oil penetration. 3: Workers spray oiled rocky shore with hot water as part of the cleanup effort.
TOP LEFT: The Exxon Valdez aground on Bligh Reef. BOTTOM LEFT: As part of the spill response, NOAA scientists surveyed oiled beaches to assess the depth of oil penetration--that is, the amount of oil that was below the surface. RIGHT: To clean many oiled shorelines after the spill, workers used high-pressure, hot-water washing--a method where oil is hosed from beaches, collected within floating boom, and then skimmed from the water's surface.

NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) was among the many local, state, federal, and private agencies and groups to provide immediate operational and scientific support during the assessment, response, and cleanup phases. In our role as science advisors to the Federal On-Scene Coordinator, OR&R provided spill trajectory, resources at risk, and early spill impact information during the initial stages of the spill. Once the focus shifted from response to cleanup, OR&R addressed issues related to the effectiveness and environmental effects of cleanup technologies.

While there is no question that the Exxon Valdez spill was an unfortunate, and in some ways, tragic incident, it is also clear that it provided a necessary impetus to reexamine the state of oil spill prevention, response, and cleanup. One result was the passage of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 by the U.S. Congress. Many states responded in similar fashion by tightening or completely restructuring oversight of oil production and transportation. For OR&R, the Exxon Valdez spill was by far the largest incident response ever mustered, and the longest-term-- scientists on-scene worked nearly round-the-clock for the six months following the spill. In addition, it was a unique opportunity to learn about the long-term effects of oil and cleanup activities in a relatively pristine setting, and to gain a greater level of understanding in order to facilitate a more effective and lower impact response in future incidents.

OR&R's long-term research on the impacts and recovery from the Exxon Valdez spill has yielded many insights into the response of a complex marine ecosystem to environmental perturbation. However, in the years since the Exxon Valdez spilled its cargo of crude oil on Bligh Reef, many parts of the Alaskan marine environment have begun to show signs of significant physical and biological change: waters have warmed, ice has receded, and populations of fish and mammals have declined. For oil spill responders and researchers, one of the primary questions we must now ask ourselves is: How do we assess impact and recovery in a system where baseline or reference conditions are rapidly changing? Ongoing long-term OR&R experiments in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet may help to provide some answers to this important question.

*A spill from the Hawaiian Patriot released an even larger amount of oil (30.4 million gallons) into the ocean in February, 1977; however, this spill occurred 300 nautical miles (600 km) off Honolulu, Hawaii, which is outside the maritime boundary known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). [back to top]

Exxon Valdez Spill top

  • Response to the Exxon Valdez Spill Within hours after the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989, a team of NOAA OR&R scientists arrived on-scene to help with the response.

  • IncidentNews: T/V Exxon Valdez See actual spill response documents and photos on the IncidentNews site. This site is also managed by OR&R, and it provides details about current and past oil spill responses for which OR&R provided scientific support. [leaves OR&R site]

  • Oil Trajectory Prediction An animation showing how an OR&R computer model predicted the oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez would travel across Prince William Sound during the first week after the spill began in March 1989.

Photo Galleries top
  • Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Photos taken after the tanker Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef in the upper part of Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989. (22 images)
  • Mearns Rock Time Series Yearly photos of Mearns Rock, a large boulder located on a rocky shoreline that was oiled during the Exxon Valdez oil spill. This photo time series shows how the marine life on one rock re-establishes itself after a major, one-time stress, such as an oil spill. (20 images)
  • Block Island Time Series Photos over several years of a plot on Block Island, Alaska, that was oiled and washed in 1989, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. At this location, the course of recovery has not followed biologists' original expectations. (6 images)
  • Major Oil Spills Photos of some of the world's largest oil spills. (10 images)

Movie about the Exxon Valdez Spill top
Lessons Learned from the Exxon Valdez Spill top
  • Podcast: Exxon Valdez Oil Spill 20th Anniversary Special (Making Waves Episode 20, March 13, 2009) NOAA's National Ocean Service talks with OR&R's senior scientist, Dr. Alan Mearns, who was involved in the initial spill response for the Exxon Valdez accident. Dr. Mearns has spent years leading a project that continues to monitor the long-term impact of the huge oil spill. (File format: MP3, size: 11 MB, 12 minutes) [leaves OR&R site]
  • Prince William's Oily Mess: A Tale of Recovery Case study of the Exxon Valdez spill, accompanied by a set of supporting resources, including student and teacher guides, an interactive quiz, an exercise with real data, and an interview with an OR&R scientist. [leaves OR&R site]
  • What Lessons Have We Learned? OR&R's goal is to use science to better understand physical and biological recovery after an oil spill like the Exxon Valdez, and then apply the lessons in future spill responses.
  • Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI) Established by Congress in response to the Exxon Valdez spill, OSRI works to identify and develop the best available techniques, equipment, and materials for responding to oil spills in the Arctic and sub-Arctic marine environment. [leaves OR&R site]
  • Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council This partnership was formed to oversee ecosystem restoration in Prince William Sound. Their site provides information about the Exxon Valdez spill, its impacts, and restoration and research efforts. [leaves OR&R site]
Assessing the Environmental Impacts of the Exxon Valdez Spill top
  • Is The Oil Gone? Surface oil at OR&R study sites had all but disappeared by 1992, three years after the Exxon Valdez spill.
  • Prince William Sound: Ecosystem in Transition How did the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the response to the spill, affect living organisms and their habitats? Here are some 1997 results and assessments from OR&R biologists conducting long-term monitoring.
  • Graphing Changes in Marine Life Abundance Try your hand at some marine biology! Follow these steps, designed for middle and high school students, to make a study of the marine life occupying a section of Mearns Rock, a boulder in Prince William Sound that was oiled by the Exxon Valdez spill.
  • Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program NOAA's Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) is responsible for assessing and restoring coastal and marine resources injured by oil spills, hazardous substance releases, and vessel groundings. DARRP was created after the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Background Information about Oil Spills top
  • What's the Story on Oil Spills? When we talk about oil spills, how much oil are we talking about? This discussion starts by looking at the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez and putting it in a more familiar perspective, and then it continues on to provide an overview of why spills happen and what happens during a spill and a spill response.
  • How Toxic Is Oil? Assessing the toxicity of oil can be a tricky business. The main difficulty is that oil is typically a mixture of many different chemicals. This discussion includes information on the Exxon Valdez spill.
  • What Is Weathering? Discussion of how oil is broken down naturally (weathering) and how scientists can "fingerprint" oil to determine its source. This discussion includes information on the Exxon Valdez spill.
  • What is Recovery? Discussion of the difficulties associated with defining recovery. This discussion focuses on the Exxon Valdez spill.
  • Oil Spills: A Guided Tour Join a scientific support team from OR&R as they help Coast Guard officers and others battling major oil spills. The tour includes an animation showing how one of OR&R's computer models predicted how the oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez would travel across Prince William Sound during the first week after the spill.

Downloadable Resources top
  • Emergency Response Division (ERD) Overview of NOAA OR&R's Emergency Response Division (ERD), formerly the Hazardous Materials Response Division (HAZMAT), and its spill response, preparedness, and training activities.
    (Document format: PDF, size: 435.3 K)

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